The hotel room was more than lush. Really, it was an expense they could have skipped. The regular rooms at the estate would have been just fine and still probably more lavish than either of them were used to but it was a special occasion. Or that had been Nick’s excuse for booking the estate’s honeymoon suite. Phil could still see the grin on his face when he hung up the phone.
“I only plan on marrying you once so we’re making the most of it.”
Phil had argued that taking a long weekend was pretty damn decadent for them anyway but he admitted that Nick had a point. They should celebrate the moment. It took them long enough to get there. Never mind all the near death incidents they’d been through. The last one had turned the tables for them both. Phil had asked Nick to marry him before the pain killers had worn off.
It hadn’t been the wisest choice and he was willing to admit it. He tried again a couple months later when they were doing a tour of the newly finished Bus. Again, Nick had said no. It wasn’t until the truth had all come out about Phil’s recovery that it all started making sense.
”Is this it? What else haven’t you fucking told me?” Anger overrode most of his other responses as he stared down at the man behind the desk who was rubbing at his jaw like it hurt more than he thought it would. Phil took a little bit of pride in that, even knowing if he’d really wanted to, Nick could have blocked the punch.
“No… yeah. I…”
If Phil hadn’t been so angry, maybe he would have noted the fact that the man he’d never seen without an answer was stumbling for words. Maybe he would have seen the defeated slump in his shoulders. “I deserve to know, Nick! You had no fucking right—“
“Well I don’t! I don’t know what the hell is real or not. I don’t know what they shoved in there on your fucking orders and what actually happened!”
“Nothing. God, Phil I—“ Nick took a deep breath and Phil watched as the Directory Fury persona took over. “You have all the specs and medical information I had to give you. All the reports. All the tests. Shit I can’t even begin to comprehend. It’s all there.” He slid the pile of paper over the desk. “Do what you want with it. Believe what you want about it all.”
“You don’t get to do this and walk away without answering for it.”
“I’m not walking away. I’m giving you a fucking out!”
“And getting out of this in the fucking process!”
“What do you want me to say?” It was the first sign of anything past resignation and defeat he’d seen in Nick since he stormed into his office. “That I couldn’t cope? I think that’s pretty fucking clear. That I abused every connection and every bit of power I had? I did that too. I would have sold my god damn soul to get you back. And I’m not fucking sorry I did any of it because it means you’re here.”
Only about half of what he said got through. “Jesus, Nick! We wouldn’t do that kind of shit to our worst enemies and you let me lay there, tortured, begging to die? What the fuck!”
“I know. I was there.” His voice broke and that got through the cloud of anger.
“How could you just—“
“I couldn’t bring myself to…” He sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. “I had an out and I couldn’t bring myself to take it. I could have shut it down but I couldn’t give you up again. It was selfish. It was wrong. And I’m not sorry because it fucking worked.”
Phil had expected those words. But he’d expected them to be defensive; to be angry. They weren’t. They were as broken as he’d ever seen Nick. When Phil spoke again, some of the anger had leaked out of his voice. “Why lie about it?”
“Do you think you’re better off with that memory?” It was the same thing Melinda had told him and he didn’t have a good argument against it. Nick sighed and leaned on the desk. “I wanted you back, but that… that felt necessary. Not just so you could move on. But so somebody else wouldn’t come looking for the tech and the drug and do fuck knows what with it.”
“Did you know? About the body? About where it all came from?”
“Not until Melinda told me. I…” Nick shook his head. “I wasn’t up for the full tour at that point. They told me they could bring you back. I didn’t ask how. That was a mistake.”
“No shit.” He let the implications sink in slowly. The idea that Nick would go into anything without full intel said more about his state of mind than anything else could have. “I don’t know what to do with all this…” He let the words out before he could really stop himself. He considered how far he would have gone if their positions had been reversed. If he could have pushed the proverbial big red button if Nick had been on that table, begging to die. He wasn’t sure he had an answer to that. “I don’t know what I would have done if…”
“I hope you never have to find out.”
Nick didn’t move. He didn’t reach out. He didn’t get up and it all clicked together in Phil’s head. He wouldn’t reach out. He wouldn’t make a move. He’d sold his soul to bring Phil back—maybe not literally but in ways he probably hadn’t even considered—and this was the penance for it. If Phil didn’t want him around, he wouldn’t push it. It was up to Phil and he wasn’t entirely sure he had an answer for whether he wanted to reach out or not. Not yet anyway.
Maybe he’d get one when he had more information. Maybe if he heard it all. Every painful, horrifying moment… “I want to know everything. From you. No reports. No science. No bullshit. Tell me everything. Tell me how we got to that point.”
Over a pile of reports about his own death and the lengths gone through to reverse it; over the evidence of Nick’s desperation and Nick’s own words about how he couldn’t stop trying to bring him back no matte the cost; after screaming and yelling and throwing a punch, Phil asked one more time. Nick said told him to really think about it before he asked again.
Eventually, he said yes.
He sighed and pressed the phone to his ear as he turned over on the far too expensive sheets. “You should have been here when I landed.”
“I know. Believe me, I’d rather be there with you.” He could hear the frustration in Nick’s voice. He couldn’t very well blame him. He knew it wasn’t Nick’s choice to be thousands of miles away right at that moment but it still didn’t stop Phil’s own frustration from bubbling up. He should have gone to pick Nick up himself but one of them had to check in with the estate. “I’ll be there early tomorrow.”
“Of course. Phil, I’m not going to let some fucking world leader with the maturity of a lab rat keep me from marrying you.”
That got a small smile. “Careful, you’ll get thrown in jail for disrespecting him like that if you keep it up.”
“Then you’ll just have to come get me.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time.”
“And I make it worth your while every time, don’t I?” Nick chuckled.
Phil shook his head. “Yeah, sure you do.”
“I love you. I’ll be there soon.”
“Mm. I guess I wouldn’t be seeing you tomorrow morning anyway.”
“No, you wouldn’t.”
Phil smiled, hoping it would carry through the phone. “I love you too, you know.”
“I hope so. I didn’t think you’d propose to somebody you didn’t at least kinda like.”
Phil hummed softly, not quite letting the small laugh out. “Three fucking times even.”
“I’m hard to get.”
“You’re worth the effort.”
“You too.” Nick let the words hang between them for a minute. It was an odd change; knowing how far someone would go for you and Phil was, in retrospect, glad he was still around to think all of that over. He’d spent a fair bit of time wondering what he’d have done in Nick’s position. It didn’t take long to work out that he’d likely have pushed every boundary he had just as Nick had. It was something he found easier to make peace with than he’d imagined. Nick’s voice pulled him out of his head a moment later. “Don’t do anything stupid before I get there.”
“I’m sure Melinda will keep me in line.”
That got a full laugh from Nick. “Yeah, she’s a good influence on both of us.”
“Maybe I should have sent her along with you then.”
“I’ll be fine.” Nick waved the concern off. There wasn’t really any cause to worry. “And I’ll be there tomorrow.”
“You damn well better be.” Phil smiled in spite of his empty bed. “Or I’ll have to kick your ass.”
“You can try.”
“I love you.”
“I love you too. Get some sleep, Cheese. It’s a big day tomorrow.”
“We will. Love you.”
“Love you too. Good night.” Phil hung up the phone and sighed heavily. His eyes took in the far too big for one person room. His tux was hanging perfectly on the washroom door. Shoes polished and ready to go under the nearby chair. He felt like he’d never been more ready for anything in his life. And Nick was right. He should get some sleep before tomorrow.
It wasn’t an event he ever figured he’d have to attend. Not really, anyway. At least not as a guest. Maybe working security or keeping an eye on any potential threats to the event but not in a suit, eating canapé. He adjusted his tie again and grabbed another glass of champagne.
“I guess working for Coulson has its perks.” Skye smirked and took another shrimp off the passing waiter’s tray.
“I don’t think it’s just that.”
“I don’t think it’s just that we work with him.” Grant waved a hand toward the small group. “This feels more… intimate than that.”
“Wow… did you just have an emotional insight? I’m impressed.” Skye followed his line of sight and her lips stuck out as she considered that. “You think these people are all… what? Family?”
“Or as close as people like us get.”
“That’s… pretty flattering.” She smiled.
Grant smiled back slowly. She was right, of course. The idea that Agent Coulson considered them important enough to him to invite them to his wedding had caught him off guard and yet it wasn’t really surprising at the same time. The fact that Coulson was marrying Nick Fury though… Grant was willing to admit that he hadn’t seen that one coming. But that was the thing about the old school SHIELD agents. Nobody really knew anything they didn’t want people to know. That made the invitation even more special, really.
He could see most of the legends in the crowd. Romanoff, Barton, Hill, Sitwell, even Rogers which was, he’d admit pretty damn exciting. He caught sight of Simmons chatting excitedly with a beautiful blonde near the bar. Fitz was nearby, looking like he was trying to find a smooth way to approach Tony Stark at the other end of said bar. Grant wished him luck. He had a feeling that Stark probably would appreciate the attention.
He’d obviously grabbed Skye’s too. “Is that really…?”
Her eyes scanned the crowd and her jaw dropped. “And… that can’t be…”
“Captain America? It is.”
“Wow. How are they keeping the buzz on this even to a dull roar?”
“What part of Director of SHIELD did you miss?”
She pouted a little and went back to her phone. “Figure Coulson’s freaking out yet?”
“I’m sure he’s fine.” He looked over her shoulder. “Who are you texting?”
“May.” Skye grinned. “He’s so not fine.”
“Well, it’s a wedding… nerves are normal.” At least he assumed so. This wasn’t really something he’d done a lot before joining this particular team. “Especially if it’s your own.”
“You think?” The joyful sarcasm that practically dripped from Skye’s words almost made him smile again.
Grant shook his head and sipped his drink. It was going to be an interesting day, apparently. And he was going to need more champagne.
She gave him a look that usually shut people up. It worked for a full thirty seconds. This time.
“Should we tell Mr. Coulson about this? It seems like the kind of thing he should be aware of. If Mr. Fury is… well, backing out of his—“
She turned on the man and frowned. “Director Fury is not backing out of anything. The man does not understand those words.”
“Of course I wouldn’t dream of suggesting—“
“And yet you keep talking.”
That worked better than the stare did. She filed that bit of information away for later. Just in case. “Should he not be made aware of the… change in schedule then?”
The man had a point. She knew that. And at this point she was getting mildly concerned. It wasn’t like Nick to do this. Sure, he was a sneaky, manipulative bastard but this wasn’t his style. She was starting to think something wasn’t lining up the way it was supposed to. “Stay out of that room. He doesn’t need to worry if there’s no reason to worry.” The minister—she guessed, anyway. Neither of the grooms were particularly religious, at least in the time she’d known them but she’d bet some early childhood churchgoing was in at least one of their pasts—wrung his hands but nodded as she walked away.
She got her phone out of the ridiculously tiny purse she was carrying. Why she’d let Phil talk her into standing up for him, she would never know but at least he’d let her pick out her own outfit. And the purse worked, even if it was ridiculously impractical. She started texting before she hit the end of the hall. She could have gone out and talked to Hill directly but that might raise a fuss and that was the last thing anyone wanted to do in the middle of a gathering of the deadliest people on the planet.
What’s his ETA?
He’s not here yet?
Let me make a call.
Melinda took a deep breath and waited. It didn’t take long for Hill to get back to her.
I’m coming in. Somebody’s going to have to talk to Phil.
Maria rounded the corner a moment later looking less than thrilled. It was her fallback expression of course, which only made it worse. “The quinjet went down.”
“The Hungarian-Latverian border.”
“We’ve only got sat visual but we think so.”
“Do you want to tell him that his groom is currently in a territory that is occupied by Latverian rebels, or should I?”
“You do it.” Maria scrubbed a hand over her face. “I need to get on the phone and see if I can’t solve this diplomatically before Fury shoots somebody.”
“And if you can’t?”
“If I can’t?” Maria frowned. “The less I know, the better.” The implication was clear. She’d trust Melinda and their team to get something done. Hill just didn’t want details.
“Understood.” Melinda looked back at the door and sighed. “You know what he’ll want to do.”
Maria nodded, following Melinda’s line of sight. “I can’t even blame him for it. But I don’t want to know.”
“And if the team goes off the book on this?”
“I won’t know about it until you’re all back with Fury in tow.”
“Forward me what you can reasonably do without compromising plausible deniability.”
Hill nodded. “ASAP. I’m sure he’ll want to see it.”
“Exactly.” Melinda sighed and turned on her heel. “Good luck with the council.”
Maria nodded again and headed back outside, no doubt ready to let the guests and party planners know that there’d been a little hitch in the schedule but they should all have a bite to eat and a drink and enjoy themselves. Well, as much as anyone would enjoy themselves at this party with one of the guests of honor missing. No doubt she’d have a long line of people asking what was really going on and what they could do and a million other things Melinda knew she herself would be asking if she wasn’t already ass deep in things.
She knocked on the door to Phil’s room and waited for him to give her the okay to come in. “He’s late isn’t he?”
She nodded and stepped in, closing the door behind her. “There was a problem.”
“What kind of problem?” Phil’s face shifted from annoyed to concerned. She knew that look. He’d already worked through the potential options here and was trying to sort out by her reactions just how big a problem it was.
“The quinjet went down on its way here.”
For half a second, she thought she’d have to surge forward to catch him. His hand landed hard on the nearest solid surface. “Survivors?”
“We don’t know. The sat images of the crash look like it wasn’t too bad but…”
“They went down near the Latverian border. SHIELD can’t get close enough to know anything at this point.”
“SHIELD can’t…” He finally gave in and sat down on the chair beside him. “What’s the plan?”
“Hill is going the diplomatic route. The chances that the WSC will play along are—“
“Negligible. Right. If they can play innocent and not have to deal with Nick anymore…” His voice shook as he spoke the man’s name. “Jesus…”
“Our team is easy to write off, Phil. You’ve said it yourself before.”
“I’m not going to—“
“If you don’t, I will.” He lifted his head, staring at her as if he hadn’t really heard what she’d said. “He’s my friend. We share a lot of history. And you deserve to have your wedding.”
“Skye can listen in; see what she can find on whatever frequency she listens in on. No doubt if anyone gets their hands on the Director of SHIELD, someone will let it slip.”
“I don’t want her involved in this.”
“Phil, there’s a very good chance that she’s already working on it.” He let out a soft, affirmative hum at that. “You and I can go in.”
The laugh he let out sounded nearly painful. “Like the old days?”
“Well, back then it was usually you we had to pull out of the fire.” She smiled softly. “But yes. Just like the old days.”
He sighed heavily, running a hand over his face. “I can’t let him go. Not after everything--”
“I wouldn’t expect you to.”
“Neither would he.” Phil lifted his head. She knew that look all too well. He wanted to lash out, let some of the pain do something. She also knew he’d hang on to it until the right target appeared.
“Well then, we shouldn’t keep him waiting.”
“Plausible deniability. But she’ll do what she can. Unofficially.”
He nodded slowly, no doubt still processing everything that had been thrown at him. She caught the moment when the switch flipped and Phil became Agent Coulson. “I need a map of the area around the crash site. Last known intel on the groups around there. See if Ward has any contacts in that part of the world. If the rebels do have him, it won’t take long for that to get out.”
“Ward will want to come along.”
“And if I say no?”
“He will insist. He’s got a very interesting idea centered on protecting the team. As you are part of the team…”
“So are you.”
Her lips thinned at the implication. It wasn’t a full frown but it was close. “That won’t be an issue.”
“Are you sure?”
“I guess I don’t have any room to throw stones this time, do I?”
“Well, we’re likely about to break several international laws to save your fiancé so…” She stopped and crossed her arms. “No. You really don’t.” She sighed and her shoulders relaxed just a little. “I’m going to go change out of this dress. You are going to put on a normal suit and we will meet back at the Bus.”
“That’s the most you’ve said to me in a long time.” He managed a weak smile.
She returned the favor. “You don’t need me to talk. You always manage to find the answer on your own.”
He sighed and got to his feet again, hands moving on auto pilot to adjust anything out of place. “Give me an hour. I should… make some excuses, I guess.”
“No, I dragged most of them here. I can handle this.”
Melinda nodded. “One hour.”
This was not how he was supposed to be spending his morning. Nick levered himself out of the pile of junk that had fallen on him in the landing—because nothing seemed to be burning yet so he wasn’t going to use the word crash. It was a silly thing to pick at but crash sounded worse and he wasn’t going to freak out the relatively young flight team he’d had with him—and tried not to give in as his vision swam and what was left of the quinjet spun.
As the world in front of him came back into focus, he grabbed the first aid kit that had landed near his foot and took stock, hoping they wouldn’t need more than the basics. He could hear Agent Yu cursing softly in a mix of English and several other languages at the radio as she tried to get it working. Nick made his way toward the cockpit. “Report.”
“Sir,” Yu sighed and scrubbed a hand over her face, wincing a little as her fingers found the impressive gash on her cheek. “We have no radio contact. GSP is out. It all should be working but…”
“Given our trajectory…” he turned toward the other agent in the cockpit. Agent Asma’s face stayed mostly passive but he caught the edge of a flinch as she adjusted her position. “We’re still near the Latverian-Hungarian border, sir.”
“Which means the radio and GPS issues may be due to an outside source.” Nick slumped just a little. “How fast can we move?”
Asma’s lips thinned. “Faster without me, sir. I don’t think I can run on my ankle right now.”
“I’m not sure.” She pushed herself up, putting just a little weight on it and biting back a sound of pain before falling back into the pilot’s seat. “I’d put money on yes, sir.”
“Okay.” Nick nodded. “We’ll get it patched up as best we can, then we get the hell out of here.” He turned to Yu. “Watch the bay door. I’m sure we’re already on the Latverians’ radar.”
“We won’t have long then.” She nodded and got up. “Sir? How much of our cargo survived?”
“I don’t know. There’s another thing you can do while you’re back there.”
She smiled and nodded her head as she moved forward and scooped up the first weapon she came across. She had her sidearm but given where they’d crashed, the M-16 probably wasn’t a bad idea. “Yes, sir.”
He turned back to Asma a moment later. “How bad is it? Do we need to set it?”
“Maybe…” She hissed again and lifted her foot. “I haven’t tried to get my boot off yet though…”
“Okay.” He took hold of the bottom of her boot. “On three. Breath, Fatima.” She nodded quickly. “Okay. One.” He pulled on the boot and she yelped as it slid off, her ankle sitting at an odd but not extreme angle. He ran the limited field medic training he’d made himself take years earlier after a mission gone bad through his head as he examined it, listening to her responses. “I think you’ll live, Agent.”
“That’s good to hear, Sir.”
“Let’s bind it up and get out of here.”
“I couldn’t agree more, sir.”
He’d pinned the tensor bandage in place when her eyes lifted and she reached for her sidearm. Yu’s voice rose; a tactical choice probably to get their attention. Nick listened, his hand on his own sidearm. “Think we can get your boot back on?”
“Yes.” She reached down and loosened the laces further; hissing softly as she gingerly put her foot back into the boot. Nick helped her up, keeping a hold on her as she hopped out into the cargo hold.
The voices were speaking a dialect he wasn’t quite fluent in. “Fucking Latverians.” He muttered under his breath. He took stock of their assets. Some firearms, a sniper rifle, small yield explosives. Nothing that was going to hold off a strike team of Latverian terrorists—or at least sympathizers who would gladly toss the three of them at Doom if it meant proving their loyalties—for long enough to get his team to a safe point where they could be picked up. With Asma’s ankle as it was running was out of the question. He wasn’t going to leave anyone behind for these bastards. “I want you and Yu to get as far away from the jet as possible.”
“Any plans on how to do that, sir?”
“Simple, Agent.” His hand closed over one of the guns against the wall, checking the rounds. If he had tracers, this might work. “I’ll distract them.”
Agent Yu had her weapon up and ready to fire when they got to the open cargo bay. “Stand down, Agent.” Nick nodded to her and stepped forward, directing his attention to the eight armed men just down the ramp from them. “If you are not here to render assistance, I’ve got no time for you and neither do my agents. As you can clearly see, we’ve got a jet to fix. So what do you want?”
“Director Fury. You will come with us.” The man’s English was clear but heavily accented. Nick sighed. He should have known they’d figure out who might be on the jet. That was going to complicate things.
“And my people?”
“They will come with us as well.”
“No? I do not think you are in a position to negotiate, Director.” He heard and watched as the men behind their de facto leader menacingly loaded their weapons.
“You have a point.” He turned to his agents again, lowering his voice. “Head south. Find a signal and get word to HQ.”
“It’s an order.” He turned back, walking calmly down the ramp with Asma and Yu at his heels. Both of them stepped around him as he stopped at the bottom of the cargo bay ramp. They were met by two of the Latverians. Nothing they couldn’t handle even with Asma’s bum ankle.
“Director, do not make this more difficult than it has to be.” The smug smile on their leader’s face made it really difficult to aim his sidearm away from the man and at the small puddle of fuel just inside the jet. The shot was loud, echoing around the cargo bay before time slowed down.
He felt the heat at his back as he surged forward, taking the leader down and hitting him hard enough to wind him. He heard yelling and the familiar crack of shots being fired. His Latverian was rusty but it sounded like Yu and Asma got some hits in before they got away. Nick cut a path through the men that rushed him. Quick, sharp movements. Efficient as always. But this time he didn’t have someone watching his back. Hill, Coulson, May, Sitwell, Barton, Romanov. Any of them would have seen the man just outside the fight with his rifle raised.
Nick felt the dart pierce the skin on the back of his neck but kept fighting. He managed to take down another attacker before the tranquilizer hit his system at full force. The world before him swam, blurred and went dark. For half a second, before his brain cut out completely, he thought about what he was supposed to be doing in that moment. The anger that these assholes had kept him from his own damn wedding kept him awake for another second, but the drugs won out.
He’d owe Phil an apology for all this.
She hadn’t bothered going back to the estate house to change out of the ridiculous gown she’d wiggled into for the wedding. She did deign to kick off her heels though as she strode into the small room. She was going to be on her feet for awhile and she hadn’t picked those out to be comfortable without a glass of champagne or two. “Report!”
“HQ sent us all the satellite data we have on the crash site. We think they’re using some kind of tech to interrupt the emergency beacon in the quinjet. It was only broadcasting for a few seconds before it cut out.” The agent to her left tapped at the keyboard in front of him. “There was no sign of explosions or any additional damage under almost a half hour later.”
She shook her head. “Long enough for one of the militia groups nearby to get to the crash site. And for the Director to need a diversion.” She muttered almost to herself as she picked up the tablet on the nearest counter. She hit a few buttons sending most of what they had to May’s phone with the note: This is the best I can do. ~H
“Commander Hill?” She turned to see another tech tapping at their keyboard. “The World Security Council would like an update.”
Maria braced herself, squaring her shoulders and turning to face the large bank of monitors near the far wall. “Put them through.”
A moment later six faces graced the screens. “We’d like an update on the status of Director Fury’s jet, Commander.”
“I wish I had more to tell you Councilman.” Maria nodded. “What we do know is that the quinjet went down in an area that is currently part of a border dispute between Latveria and Hungary. There are Latverian terror cells peppering the area. Any of them could see this as an opportunity to—“
“They will not get an opportunity, Commander. And SHIELD will not get involved in this dispute.”
Maria shifted her attention to the female voice. “Ma’am?”
“We have assurances from the Latverian government that any survivors of the crash will be returned to us as soon as possible.”
Maria couldn’t quite stop the frown that crossed her face from forming. Really, she hadn’t put much effort into stopping it. “And you believe this.”
“Yes, we have a good diplomatic report with Prime Minister Von Bardis.”
“I would like to send in a salvage team for the jet at the very least.”
“We’ve been told there’s nothing left to salvage.”
‘Because the rebels picked it clean?”
“Because we will handle this diplomatically. There is no need to exacerbate this situation by sending in a hostile team.” She could make out the steepled fingers of the shadowy figure. She was powerfully reminded of a 1960s Bond villain. “The lives of three agents are not worth starting a major world conflict.”
She hadn’t expected a different response. In fact, that had been the one she’d been planning for. She didn’t agree with it which was why Agents May and Coulson and potentially Ward were on their way across Europe to do exactly what the WSC didn’t want done. “Yes, sir. There will be no military action from our end.” She disconnected the call a moment later and smiled.
Three agents didn’t qualify as a military action, after all.
“Not that long.”
“Long enough.” She shook her head a little and ran a hand over his shoulder. “Definitely looks like old times though.”
He ran a hand over the suit. “Maybe not quite like old times.”
“I hate these things.” He grumbled and pulled at the damn near skin tight suit. There was a part of him—most likely the skinny 12 year old that got the shit kicked out of him almost daily for being a dork—that couldn’t feel comfortable in the tactical suits.
Nick’s hand closed over his shoulder and he looked up at the other man. “You’ll love it when it saves your life.” He patted Phil’s shoulder and moved around him toward the Jeep parked at the far end of the almost empty lot. If Phil’s eyes lingered on the way the fabric of Nick’s tactical suit clung to his ass, well… he was only human, after all. It didn’t mean anything. After all, his eyes may be lingering on the third member of their party too.
Melinda May was perched with her gorgeous ass exactly where the drivers side window of the Jeep would usually be. She smirked at both of them as they approached. “Very nice, gentlemen.”
Nick laughed. “Not so bad yourself. All set?”
“Gassed up and packed up. Just waiting on you two.”
Phil could practically feel the look as he walked past the driver’s side of the Jeep to throw the last of their gear in the back. “What?”
“You should wear tac gear more often.” Melinda smiled and slid into her seat.
Nick smirked at him and opened the passenger door. “I keep telling him that. He never listens.”
Phil was pretty sure his cheeks were on fire. “Can we talk about anything else, please?”
“Okay.” The tone in Nick’s voice was dangerous and Phil knew it. He could also see the edge of Melinda’s smirk. It was going to be a long drive. “How about we talk R&D into getting rid of those sleeves so we can ogle your arms instead?”
“Now that’s a good idea.”
“I hate you guys.” Phil crossed his arms over his chest and sat back, still blushing and absolutely not pouting. His eyes caught Melinda’s in the rearview mirror for a second before she smiled back at him and put the Jeep into gear.
“You’re cute when you blush too.”
He made a small negative noise and Nick shook his head. “When we’re done with this 0-8-4, we’ll make it up to you.”
He felt his cheeks heat up again but he smiled against his better judgment. This wasn’t a new thing really. They teased each other. They made jokes that HR would deem workplace inappropriate. They would get serious again when it came time to get the job done and they’d get it done. After that… well, that wasn’t anybody’s business outside of the three of them. It wasn’t romantic or love or anything else he would have called it when he was younger but it worked and it strengthened the team. They had a better read on each other than most strike teams he’d seen. At least he thought so. “You better.”
“So pushy.” Melinda sighed heavily and shook her head as she pulled the Jeep onto the highway.
Nick turned and smirked at him. “Can’t change the system now, right?”
Melinda’s voice pulled Phil back to the present. “Fury would disagree.”
“I’m sure he would.”
“I’m disagreeing too.” She smirked and shook her head again. The mirth disappeared quickly as she slipped back into mission mode. “Ward’s getting changed.”
“Do I need to brief him?”
“He knows what’s going on here. No safe conduct. No back up.”
“Well, that’s not entirely true.” They both turned to see Fitz, Skye and Simmons at the bottom of the stairs, looking far too determined for their own good. “We might not be able to get across borders and fight terrorists hand to hand and dodge bullets and all that jazz,” Skye smirked, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t back you up.”
Phil motioned them into the briefing space. “Alright, what have you got for us?”
“We have some things that might come in handy.” Jemma whirled around with a pack full of tech. “Fitz boosted the output of the emergency beacons. They’re the personal ones but they should be able to get through the dampening field they seem to be using in the area.”
“We’ve reworked the bio tracker patches as well.” Fitz pulled a piece of equipment out of the bag. It was about the size of the first breed of cell phone. “If any of you get separated, you’ll be able to track the stray agent down.”
“I’ve been monitoring the social media and back tracks coming from the area. It’s been surprisingly quiet. None of the usual conquer the universe crap. But…” she started scrolling through whatever she had on her phone. “I picked up a hint of a comm. trail and found this.”
She hit a few buttons on the console and a text conversation started to scroll past them on the screen on the wall. Phil sighed, squinting a little and trying to pick out something useful. “My Latverian is worse than I thought.”
“We do have a translate program. Sorry.” Fitz shuffled over and tapped at the console, clearing his throat as the program kicked in and the words became readable. “There we are.”
“Patrol movements, stock lists… this is good.”
“We’ll send it to Hill when we’re clear.”
“Yeah, that’s great but that wasn’t what caught my attention.” Skye scrolled through the text again and poked at the screen. “There.”
In amongst the other day to day movements there were coordinates that matched the crash site and a single line message. We have the eagle.
“The eagle?” Fitz glanced at the rest of the team. “Code for… American?”
“No.” Everyone’s eyes followed Phil’s line of sight to the symbol on the window. “They have Director Fury. The eagle. The SHIELD crest.” He sighed. “How far in can you take us on the Bus?”
“Sezged at best but even that’s pushing it. The Hungarian administration doesn’t want to rock the boat. They’ve got enough problems with the Latverian forces as it is.”
Ward stood up. “There’s an airstrip that was controlled by the local militia here.” He pointed at a spot of what looked like nothing on the map. “Latverians aren’t their favorite people. I had a friend there awhile ago. If we had an excuse to land there, we could cut across country.”
“Make some excuses when we’re in the air. Fuel leak, engine trouble. Something. We need to get as close as we can before we’re forced out on foot.” Phil studied the map for a moment. “We need to narrow the field down here.”
“The base or… whatever, wouldn’t it have to have some tech in it? Whatever’s jamming signals? Could we track that?” Skye looked to Fitz and Simmons. Fitz looked like he already had an idea.
“Preferably in some way that won’t tip them off that we’re there?” Grant kept his eyes on the map, seeming to plot the same paths over and over again.
“I’ve been tinkering with something… it would pick up the energies needed for that kind of tech.”
“Would it give away our position?”
“I don’t know.”
“We don’t have time to find out.” Melinda frowned.
“Field testing it is then.” Phil sighed. “We’re leaving ASAP. Pack the tech, you can brief us when we land.”
With that everyone scattered to do what needed doing. The flight wouldn’t be long and there was enough to keep everyone busy. Everyone, it seemed, but Skye. Phil watched as she traced a finger over the SHIELD crest on the window. “Latverians aren’t that subtle are they?”
“This bunch isn’t.”
His eyebrow crept up. “Shouldn’t I be?”
“Yeah, yeah. Of course. Just…” She looked at the crest again. “After everything that…” She sighed and shook her head. “I think it’d take more than a plane crash and some terrorists to stop your wedding, is all I’m saying.”
Phil couldn’t help the small smile that crossed his face. “Is that the nice way of saying I’m a stubborn bastard?”
“Pretty much.” She nudged his shoulder with her own. “I mean it’s kind of amazing that you… well, most people probably wouldn’t have gotten this far.”
“I should thank you for that.”
Phil nodded. “Indirectly but I don’t think I would have gone to him to figure out why he did what he did if it wasn’t for you.”
“I didn’t do anything though.”
“Sure you did.” He smiled a little, a wry thing for sure but still a smile. “You have a unique ability to look on the bright side. It’s contagious.”
“Well… thanks. I guess.”
Phil nodded. “Go see if you can get any more details out of the messages. Now that we know what we’re looking for…”
“We’ll get your boyfriend back, AC.”
“Boyfriend is kind of ridiculous at my age, Skye.”
“It’s not ridiculous. It’s cute. And I like to think you two are very cute when nobody’s looking.” She waggled her eyebrows at him with a laugh.
Phil shook his head. “Get back to work.”
“Maybe we should have started at 1000 instead.”
Nick nodded slowly and rubbed his hands over his arms. “It’s freezing in here.”
“I guess our comfort isn’t their greatest concern. And, you know… Russia in February.”
“Think they can hear us?”
“If they can, they hate us already.” Phil let out a tense chuckle and Nick looked up as he felt the thin, scratchy fabric of the single blanket that Phil was draping over his shoulders. “What about you?”
“I’m okay for now.” Phil shrugged and bumped his shoulder against Nick’s. “You’re always a wimp about cold anyway.”
“Don’t give them any ideas.”
Phil smirked. “Remember the ice cubes?”
“You loved it. Melinda loved it too.”
“Keep it up and I’m going to make out with you just to keep warm.”
“Is that a threat? It doesn’t feel like a threat.”
As if the word conjured their captors into being, the door to the cell opened. He managed to block most of the next few days from his memory aside from constantly taunting and stepping in the way when they tried to change tactics and go after Phil. Nick was his SO, technically and his friend and he knew enough about this kind of bad guy to know what they’d do with an opening like that. He couldn’t put it into words but stepping between them and Phil because his focus.
Until it wasn’t entirely possible to focus anymore. He was still repeating name, rank and number when they dropped his ass on the cell floor again.
“Jesus fucking Christ, Nick.” He heard Phil grumble and bit his lip hard as he tried to help Phil lever him onto the cot. “Stupid self sacrificing son of a bitch.”
“You’ll thank me later.” He mumbled as he pulled the thin blanket tighter around himself. “Is it colder in here?”
“No.” Phil sighed and curled up next to him, pulling his back against his chest. “You’re probably going into shock, dumbass.”
Nick winced as Phil held him tighter. “Ribs…” it was enough to get him to shift a little and loosen his hold.
“No dying on me, okay?”
“Okay. Not going anywhere.” If his eye closed and he started to drift a little, he was pretty sure he didn’t let on. At least not at first.
“Come on, Nick. If you die on me, Melinda will kick my ass.”
“Not dying… just don’t want to let them—“
“Hey, if we’re talking you’re not passing out. You don’t want them to what?”
The pain and the way the room spun and the ridiculous amount of effort it took not to throw up kept him quiet for longer than he intended but Phil was right. If they were talking, he was still awake. Which, in his mind meant he could get up and go another round if he had to. He wasn’t going to poke too hard at why he felt that was necessary but it was either way. “Get at you. If I’m on my feet they can’t get at you.”
“Nick… I can take care of myself.” Phil’s voice sounded soft, warm next to his ear.
“I know that.” He sighed, relaxing as much as the broken ribs and god knew what else would let him. “Don’t like it though.”
“Well, it stops now. I’m not going to let you die for me.”
Nick’s head swam again and he thought he might have missed a few minutes. “—more important.”
“You’re more important.” He was having trouble putting meaning to the words but it felt like something he had to get out before the darkness closed in again.
“No one agent is ever that important.” Phil quoted quietly against his neck.
Nick cracked his eye open and sighed. His head spun but nothing hurt more than it should after an explosion and a plane crash anyway. He sat up slowly, careful not to move too quickly so that the spinning didn’t send him back to the floor. “Well, at least they let me keep my clothes this time.”
The door opened with a hiss—airlock, tiny seems, no easy way to pick his way out—and two men with automatic weapons entered the room. He noted what he could. Ill trained, mostly there to look tough. He could probably get the weapons away from them and rush his way out.
“I know what you’re thinking Director. I wouldn’t try it.” A third man walked into the room and the guards stood more at attention. So this was the leader. The real one, aside from Doom anyway. “Your agents are very clever. One of them managed to elude us thus far. The other seemed to be of your ilk.”
“She came out, guns blazing at the search party. She is currently enjoying our accommodations now as well.”
Nick took the man’s lines in. He seemed more like a bored accountant than a terrorist mastermind but he’d learned decades ago not the judge a book by its cover. “You can’t be stupid enough to think I’ll take your word on that.”
“Of course not. You’re a practical man and my word would mean nothing to you. We’ve only just met.” The man chuckled and pulled out a small tablet, tapping at it until an image of Agent Yu pacing a cell very similar to his own came up. “She will not come to harm if you cooperate with us.”
“And if I don’t?”
“I know you are a… what’s the phrase… tough nut? Something like that. Either way, torture is not something I condone, but we will do to you what is necessary. The agent is collateral. You, Director are our prime focus.” He shrugged as if someone had asked him whether he wanted fries or salad with his lunch. “You will need to consider your options, Director. No one, not even your SHIELD will find this location.”
“I’ve heard that before.”
“I’ve no doubt you have. But in this case it’s true.”
“I’ve heard that before too.”
“Stubbornness will not get you anywhere, Director. Think on your options. You have a few hours before we will begin one way or another.”
Even after all the time they’d worked together, she never stopped being amazed by Phil’s instincts on things like that. Skye had them too. Which was probably how he’d pulled that off as well. Melinda knew Nick hadn’t been sold on the idea of keeping a potential terrorist hacker on board but that had never stopped Phil from getting what he wanted.
Simmons’ voice pulled her mind away from her checklist for a moment. “I’ve tried my best to get something for every possible outcome in here.” She handed Coulson what looked like a standard med kit. No doubt there was nothing standard about it, knowing Simmons. She nodded sadly though as he put the kit in his pack. “I’m sure it won’t be necessary, sir. It hasn’t been that long since—“
“It’s alright, Jemma. I know what we could be walking into. I appreciate the extra effort.” There was a look on Coulson’s face that Melinda hadn’t seen in a long time. It was a look that promised that any harm done to Nick was going to be returned ten fold on the people responsible, even if that meant storming Doomstadt on his own and taking a can opener to Latveria’s sovereign. She didn’t doubt he’d do it too if worse came to worse. “Report.”
“We’re set to go. Ward and I are both briefed on the tech. It’s easy enough that I can fill you in on the way.” She did up the last zip on her pack and shouldered it.
“Sir, how exactly are we going to track down the Director when we find the base?”
“Let us handle that, Ward.”
“You think he’ll remember Kaesong?” Melinda couldn’t stop the small smirk that crossed her face.
Phil shook his head. “I’m sure he does. If he can pull off getting out of the cells before we find him this will go a hell of a lot faster.”
Ward watched them closely for a moment. She could see him fitting pieces together in his mind and his jaw went slack for a moment when he get a chunk of the picture done. The escape of three agents from a small cell in North Korea was legend at SHIELD, even if the names of the agents were conveniently lost over the years. “Strike team beta…”
“Surprised?” Phil hefted his pack onto his shoulders.
“Just know we have a short hand with the director.” Coulson started down the cargo bay ramp. “Watch our backs and we’ll be home by lunch tomorrow.” He turned his attention back to Simmons, Fitz and Skye. “Keep scanning for anything out of the ordinary. Contact us if you get a hit on where we’re heading.”
With that they disembarked to meet with Ward’s contact. Luckily she was still working at the air strip. She was eyeing the Bus like it was made of gold. “This is impressive.” She muttered more to herself than anyone in particular. “You know you now have the attention of anyone in the area, yes?”
“It’s a calculated risk.” Ward extended his hand. “Good to see you again, Vanka.”
“Always trouble. But always the interesting kind.” She shook her head and smiled as she shook his hand firmly. “What are you hunting now?”
“Latverians. Any idea where we could start?” Melinda cut in, wanting to get some distance between them and the air strip before the sun set.
“That depends. There are a few camps around here. But I think they have something important to risk this, yes?”
“Very important.” Coulson nodded.
“Well, the best route would be east of here. The caves in those hills. Rumors are there is something down there. Too much power and not enough movement to be anything but bad news.” She pointed out a small break in the trees. “There is a road, but it’s easy to lose.”
“We’ll manage alright.” Ward nodded.
Coulson nodded toward the woman. “Thank you for the help.”
“I’d hate to put a hole in your plane but if the authorities need an excuse for it being here…” She spread her hands wide in a gesture meant to seem helpless.
Melinda understood the position she was in but the thought of someone messing with the Bus put her on edge. “Just nothing too big.”
“I will do my best.” She nodded and the two women seemed to understand each other.
They moved silently down the road—though the word road seemed generous for what was basically two ruts in the woods—before curiosity finally seemed to get to Ward. “Am I right?”
“You, May, Director Fury… you were strike team beta.”
Melinda smirked. She couldn’t stop herself. “We were.”
“Once upon a time before Nick was promoted.”
“And you went the command route on me.” Melinda’s eyebrow crept up.
Phil smiled; one of the first genuine ones she’d seen from him since before the quinjet crash. “I had to keep an eye on him, didn’t I?”
“He needed the help more than I did.”
Ward shook his head, shifting his pack. “You’re legends.”
“You knew that before you knew why.” Melinda moved forward, pushing ahead of both men. “There’s a reason the names of most strike teams are classified to anyone who wasn’t or isn’t on the team.”
Ward’s head tilted to the side as he considered that. “Barton and Romanov…”
“An anomaly, not the rule.” Melinda shrugged.
“It’s alright. You’re not the first person to feel a disconnect between some of the old guard and the stories about them. It was the same when we joined up. Carter, Stark, Dugan, Jones… it was hard to put the faces we saw to the stories we all knew about the SSR.” Phil gave Grant a vaguely self deprecating look. “None of us take it personally.”
Melinda sniffed lightly and smiled. “Speak for yourself. I think Fury does.”
“Okay,” Phil chuckled, “most of us don’t.”
Ward sighed, pulling the scanner Fitz had put together to pick up odd energy sources. “There are people that think your team didn’t really exist.”
One of Coulson’s shoulders rose for a moment. “New recruits. They’ll figure it all out sooner or later.”
She didn’t see Ward smirk but she could hear it in his voice. “Is that the advantage to having Director Fury control the level of classified on your missions?”
“One of them, yeah.”
Ward focused in on the device in his hands again but he couldn’t seem to let it go. “Strike team beta…”
“Saying it over and over again won’t change anything.”
Before Ward could reply, May’s hand went up. They split up, taking both sides of the road and staying out of sight in the dimming light. They listened intently to the soft rustle of movement ahead of them. She couldn’t be sure but if it was an animal it was injured. If it was human, they likely weren’t going any better which meant between the three of them, the approaching noise wouldn’t be a threat. Unless of course, it was a trap.
And really, that was always a safe bet.
There was a click a few minutes later once the noise in the bushes stopped. May saw Coulson’s gaze narrow on the source. It was a sharper look than she’d seen from him since New York. Something about the noise was familiar and he was trying to figure out if it was familiar for the right reasons or not. As he pulled his side arm, she stepped out into the clear with him. Almost instantly a voice could be heard from the gathering dark.
“Oh, thank goodness.” A young woman pulled herself out of the brush and limped toward them. Her uniform was torn and dirty. “Agent Fatima Asma, sir.” She tried to straighten up on what was obviously an injured leg. “I was on Director Fury’s flight crew.”
“Report, Agent.” Phil lowered his sidearm but didn’t holster it. He still wasn’t sure what was going on. May agreed with the move. Even if this woman was SHIELD, which she looked to be, god only knew what the Latverians could do to convince someone to pull an about face. Loyalties were very rarely solid, constant things in their world.
“The quinjet went down in hostile territory. I was injured in the crash. Director Fury gave my partner and I orders to get somewhere we could get a signal out. The Latverians were blocking any attempts. Director Fury… he blew up the quinjet to give us time to get away. My partner took on half their numbers to help me get away. I… I don’t know their current status, Sir.”
Ward handed the woman a canteen. She gratefully drank from it. “I’ve been trying to find anyone who could get a message out for the last 20 hours, give or take.”
“There’s a mobile command unit at the airfield a few miles back. Can you make it?”
“Yes, sir.” She nodded and looked at May for a moment. “The locals mostly don’t seem to want to get involved. I was turned away from a couple farm houses. I’m not sure if they’re sympathizers or just scared.”
Coulson nodded slowly and seemed to stare into the woods, as if he could see those farm houses and was considering what the play might be. “Duly noted, Agent. Go get yourself fixed up.”
“I’m sorry about… I know the director was going to his wedding and… well, I’m sorry he missed that.” She hesitated for a moment. “I’d really appreciate it if you brought my partner home too.”
“We’ll do our best, Agent.”
He didn’t give them a real reaction until they dropped him on the floor of the cell. Nothing quite like spitting blood at the bastard that was trying to hurt you. He hadn’t even resorted to the usual name, rank, number line. But as he lay there, he was drifting. His mind trying to find a safer place to be. He couldn’t blame it. He didn’t want to be where he was either.
“You need to talk to him about this.”
Nick lifted his head and stared at Melinda. He hadn’t thought she was awake and if he was honest about it with himself at least, maybe she’d just caught him watching Phil sleep. Which didn’t really mean anything… not really. It was post-mission jitters. The need to know his team was alright. That was all. The fact that his brain had jumped immediately to Phil when she’d spoken didn’t mean anything either. She could be talking about anything, he reasoned. “Okay, from the top, talk to who about what?”
“You know exactly what I’m talking about.”
“No, Nick. You know I enjoy what the three of us have been doing as much as you do but…” She glanced down at Phil and back up at him. “I’m not here to be a buffer so you two don’t have to deal with your feelings.”
“Not pulling your punches, huh?”
“Do I ever?”
“No. No you don’t.” He sighed and let his gaze fall back to the man sleeping between them. He couldn’t quite stop himself from dragging his finger tips down Phil’s bicep. Maybe Melinda had a point. “What do you want me to do? Wine and roses? Confessions of undying love? That’s not really any of our style.”
“Style has nothing to do with it.”
“I don’t know that I agree with that.”
“Of course you don’t.” It looked like she only barely managed not to roll her eyes at him. “But there is nothing simpler than owning this and telling him you want more.”
He felt himself frown just a little. “Who said I wanted more?”
“You did.” Her eyebrow crept up. “I took a shift sitting with you after what happened.”
“After some fucker tried to skin me alive. You can say it, Mel.”
“Fine. I know you weren’t talkative with the rest but you told me you missed your shot. That you should have said something. Now, knowing you and him as well as I do…”
She stared at him a little longer. In the time he’d known her, Melinda May had never been one to back down. He hadn’t ever really been one to back down either but he thought she might just win out this one time.
“Okay. Okay, I’ll bring it up.” He sighed heavily. She nodded and put her head back down on her pillow. “You know you’re still welcome to join us though.” He smirked and was a little surprised when she shook her head.
“I don’t need to get caught in the middle of your love story.”
He sighed again, blinking against the dim lights. The memory still warm in his mind. Love story… yeah, that was about it. It was so damn cliché, he could barely tolerate it when Phil felt the need to explain to people the broad strokes of how they got together in the first place. And he’d managed to screw it up. Again. He couldn’t even manage to get to his own damn wedding without it becoming an international incident. It was different when he fucked things up on purpose; that always had a reason and would—he hoped—balance out in the end. When it was completely out of his hands though, it was infuriating.
He swallowed hard against the nausea that flooded his senses as he tried to roll over. His head swam and the urge to just let the darkness swallow him whole again was strong.
He tried to open his eye and see where that voice was coming from. Apparently they’d either moved Agent Yu to his cell or left him in a bloody heap in hers. Either way, they were sharing space and that was a new reason to keep himself from throwing up. Puking in front of the level 5 agents was bad form. “Agent. Report.”
“There’s not much to say, Sir. They dropped you off about an hour ago. It’s hard to tell without windows but judging on food delivery times, it’s around 9pm.”
He nodded before he could think better of it and groaned as the cell spun again. “Any weak spots you’ve seen.”
“No Sir. Nothing I could take advantage of on my own anyway. But the door does open when it’s feeding time.”
“Right with two guns pointed at your head the whole time.”
“How much combat training do you have, Yu?”
“Topped my class at hand to hand in the Academy, Sir.”
“Good. We’re gonna need that.”
“Sir, no offense but I don’t think I can carry you and beat up all the bad guys…”
“You won’t have to, Yu.” He sighed. He hated this part. He hated admitting that he couldn’t get them out on his own but he knew who would be coming after them. There was no way May was going to let his capture sit without some censuring looks and Phil wasn’t going to let him rot there. If they were coming, Ward was right on their tail. No doubt their new protégé would be in on it too. And the sci-ops kids were probably testing some new tech. “Just get me on my feet and I’ll keep up.”
“I will make it an order, Agent.”
She frowned, her eyes lingering on the spots of blood on the floor where he’d been dropped. “Yes, Sir.” She sat back, wrapping her arms around her knees as he tried to focus his vision. “Is there a plan, Sir?”
He smiled, knowing it was probably not the most comforting of expressions given the beating he’d taken but he couldn’t quite help himself. “What do you know about the escape from Kaesong?”
Her eyes went wide. “A… a little. Just the usual rumors. I didn’t think it really happened.”
“It happened, Agent.” Nick closed his eye, swallowing hard again. “And with any luck, you’ll get a first hand demonstration on how.” He took a deep breath and began explaining what they’d need to do at the first sign that a team had breached the base. He could only hope that team knew what they were doing too.
“The Latverian government has no solid ties to those groups, Commander.”
A second voice flooded the speakers and backed up the ridiculous claims of the first. “They insist that the director and his crew never crossed into their borders. What the people of their country do outside their borders is not something we can expect them to—“
“Excuse me, Sir but you’re either an idiot or your motivations here are not the safety of SHIELD personnel.” Maria ground the words out between gritted teeth.
“Our priority is to make sure that a downed jet doesn’t start a war, Commander.”
“And my priority as the acting head of SHIELD is to make sure my people don’t get sacrificed to your politics, Councilman.” Her gaze narrowed on the dark screens. “I’m well aware of what you’re willing to sacrifice in the face of opposition but I don’t think a nuclear strike is called for this time.”
She signaled the comms officer to disconnect the call and slumped against the panel. “If they call back, tell them I’m busy.”
“Agent, don’t take their shit with a smile either. Feel free to hang up on them all over again.” She took a little joy in the shock and horror on the agent’s face before she stood and moved out of the room and out of the shed they’d been using as HQ. She moved without really considering what could come of what she was going to do. She got in the nearest SHIELD vehicle and fired up the radio. “SHIELD 616, do you copy?”
She heard the fumbling and a curse or two. “Shit… this is SHIELD 616.”
Great. The girl. “Skye is it? This is Deputy Director Hill.”
“Oh shit… I mean, yes, Ma’am? What can we do for you?”
Maria heard more shuffling and a few more voices and assumed she was being heard by whoever was left on the Bus. “I need an update.”
“I thought you were staying out of it…” Maria could almost see Skye hesitate. “Ma’am.”
“I was. Now I’m not. I need to know what’s going on.”
“They’ve activated the tracking devices we sent them out with. So far all readings on the tactical suits are normal for a long walk… which is what they’re on after all…” Simmons’ voice came across the radio. She didn’t sound too flustered so it was likely what she was saying was the truth. The woman was a notoriously horrible liar.
Before she could say anything else, there was a quick spurt of noise. “Just a moment, Deputy Director…” Skye’s voice covered whatever Fitz and Simmons and another voice were saying. “There’s somebody here that would like to talk to you.”
“Commander Hill? This is Agent Asma. I was part of Director Fury’s flight crew.”
“The team you sent in—“
“I didn’t send anyone, Agent.”
“Understood.” Maria liked her already. No explanations seemed to be needed as to why she wasn’t to put Maria’s name to any of this. It was a good sign. “I ran into a team travelling toward what is rumored to be a Latverian strong hold near the border. They’re probably closing in on the location now.”
Maria nodded to herself, her brain spinning that over a few times before she spoke again. “Skye, Simmons, Fitz, can you get radio contact with the team?”
Fitz’s voice filled the truck almost before she’d finished speaking. “Yes… we should be able to even through their dampening fields. We’ve boosted the output on the portable—“
“Just do it.”
“And if you can patch me through directly…”
“Yes,” Fitz’s voice sounded a little excited at the prospect. “Yes I think we can do that.”
“Then get it done.”
This was always the time when people got jumpy. Most people anyway. Not May. Not Nick. Not his second team, of course. But most people outside of that tight group would end up questioning why they were waiting. If not right away, then after the first few hours.
It seemed that Ward was going to fit into that original tight group rather well. He was silent beside Phil, eyes scanning for any sign that they’d been spotted or any scouts out in the woods, patrolling the grounds around the base. Phil himself had eyes on the guards stationed around the doors. There didn’t seem to be much resistance outside the base but once they got in, that would change very quickly.
He wondered again if this was the best way to do it. To trust in the luck that Nick and Agent Yu would be attempting an escape at the right time, or that they’d be able to attempt one. He took a deep breath and shook his head. Doubts weren’t going to make things better or worse in the long run. If they had to track down the place where the Latverians were holding Nick and Yu, then so be it. It would be easier if they were on their way out when they got in there but… either way, failure was not an option.
Failure was never an option anyway. Phil caught himself smiling softly for a moment.
He paced. He would admit it if he absolutely had to. It was huge news after all and after their last few missions it wasn’t surprising that they’d all be up for some commendations at the very least. But it also meant things would change. Which meant he couldn’t keep on pretending that there was nothing more going on than team stress relief. At least not with Nick. Melinda… they’d worked out a long time ago that she was absolutely not interested in anything but friendship with the occasional benefit, but Nick… well, Phil was going to have to swallow a little pride and bite the bullet on this one.
After all, Deputy Directors of SHIELD didn’t usually keep going out in the field with their old teams.
He jumped a little when Nick’s hand landed on his shoulder. “Hey, where were you just now?”
“Just… thinking.” He shrugged and tried to blow it off. “I hear congratulations are in order.”
“Yeah… look, I wanted to talk to you.”
“So you’re taking the job right?”
“Yeah, yeah of course.”
“Right. Well… congratulations.”
‘You said that already. Phil…”
“It’s going to be pretty tough to adjust though. I mean, not really travelling anymore. Kinda stuck in the Hub or HQ in New York or on that thing they’re having Stark Industries build. That’d be pretty neat though—“
“Okay.” They stood in silence for longer than Phil thought was necessary. He tried not to fidget too much. “I’m… I’m happy for you. It won’t be the same without you around but… you earned this.”
“You’re right. It won’t be the same. Might even try having a home I actually go to now and then.” Nick chuckled. It seemed like he wanted it to be light but it wasn’t working.
Phil found himself smiling a little. “It’s been a while since we’ve done that. I wouldn’t know where to start.”
“Me either. But it’d be nice, right? Having some place to go.” There was something hesitant in Nick’s voice that Phil couldn’t quite pin down. He didn’t want to think too hard on it though.
“Yeah. Yeah it probably would be.”
“You could, you know.”
Phil finally looked up. “What?”
“You could… have someplace to go and all that shit. If you wanted to.” Nick sighed heavily. “Look, I know you love the field. I can’t imagine you ever giving that up.”
“No. Me either.”
“But when you’re not out there…”
“You inviting me to crash, Nick?”
“I’m inviting you to move in, Phil.”
“You want a roommate?”
Nobody else would have caught the quick deflation in Nick’s shoulders, but Phil wasn’t just anybody else. “If that’s what you want…”
Phil studied the man in front of him for a minute. He was positive Nick wasn’t saying what it sounded like he was saying. That was asking too much of the universe, he was sure. But… “Nick?”
“Look, I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell you this and Melinda’s been on my ass about it but I don’t have the time to think it out anymore and…” Nick took a step closer and he hesitated with his hand up between them before touching Phil’s cheek. “I think you know already… on some level, maybe… I want more than what we’ve got so far. I don’t like hiding this shit and I want to do all the stupid date night, ordering in, cuddle on the couch shit too.”
“You want me to move in with you?” Phil couldn’t stop himself from leaning into the touch. “We haven’t even been out on a date yet.”
“We’ve been sleeping together for years.”
“That’s true.” He turned his head, pressing his lips lightly to the palm of Nick’s hand and watching for a reaction. He smiled against Nick’s skin when the man in question shivered. “Tell you what, I’ll take you out for dinner tonight. To celebrate your promotion. And we’ll see how it goes from there.”
“Sounds like a solid plan.” Nick smiled warmly and leaned in, pressing a tentative kiss to Phil’s lips. “You do know what I’m trying to tell you though…”
“I know.” Phil kissed him back, pulling him closer. “And I do too. We’ll work out how to actually… you know, say it. Eventually.” If he was honest with himself, he knew he’d be looking into apartments in New York sooner rather than later.
The radio crackle pulled him back to where his mind should have been. Fitz’s voice came through a moment later. “Sir? We’re patching Commander Hill through. She’d like a word.”
There was no time to respond before Hill’s voice came through. “I want proof that these people have ties to the Latverian government, Coulson.”
“I’ll do what I can but my priority is getting our agents out of there.”
“I understand and endorse that, Phil but the WSC is taking Von Bardas and Doom at their word and I’d like to cram those words down their throats.”
“Understood. I’m sure Director Fury will agree whole heartedly.”
“I don’t doubt it. Go get him, Phil.”
“That’s the plan.”
There was a moment of silence before her voice came back through the tiny speaker. “Anything else planned that I can help with?”
“We’re at the doorstep. Just about ready to ring the bell. If you can get back up here in the next hour…”
“That’d be tough.”
Phil sighed. He knew she was in between a rock and a hard place and frankly he didn’t have time to brief a team anyway. “Medical evac in about an hour would be nice too. Get the coordinates from the Bus and go from there.”
“That I think we can do. I’ll coordinate with your back end team. Hill out.”
The radio hissed and went quiet. Phil looked up to see Ward coming back toward him. “Any news?”
“We’ll have medical evac at this location in about an hour… maybe sooner depending on the timeline.” He squinted at the guards in front of the base. “Hill wants any evidence we can get that this group has ties to the Latverian government. That’s on you when we get in. May and I can take care of the rescue part.” Phil turned to face Ward. “Don’t make us rescue you too.”
“Good. When May gets back, we move in. Until then, keep checking for scouts and keep an eye on any movements that might come in handy.”
Not twenty minute later, May slid into the bushes beside him. “I took out one scout. Probably won’t take them long to notice.”
“So much for going in quietly.”
She shrugged. “It could have been louder. We don’t have time.”
Phil sighed and tapped the adjusted-for-interference comm. unit. “Are you in position?”
“Yes, sir.” Ward’s voice was staticky but easily understood.
“Move in.” He looked at Melinda and got to his feet, sidearm loaded and in hand. “Just like last time.”
“Don’t get shot this time.”
“Your concern is touching.” He shook his head. “Let’s go before Ward gets himself killed.”
“You ready, Yu?”
“I could be asking you the same thing, Sir.”
“What did I tell you?”
“Get you on your feet and you’ll take care of it. Yes, I know.” She sighed and moved to the side of the door. “What if they don’t come in to check on us?”
“Alarms like this… they’ll check.” He tried to get to his feet and desperately ignored the spin and nausea that washed over him. “Get me to the door. Right side. I’ll give you an opening.”
“Consider it an order.” He did his best not to wince as she pulled him up. He counted off injuries as they moved, treating the list like a mantra. At least three broken ribs. Pretty major concussion, he guessed. Blood loss, obviously. None of it was working in his favor and he couldn’t quite hold in the hiss when his back hit the wall. “And get me a gun.”
“First priority after knocking the guard out, Sir.”
It only took about a minute for the sounds of guards on the other side of the door to reach them. Granted, his Latverian was rusty but somebody was shouting orders in a tone that made Nick wonder how large the rescue party was. As the door swung open, his foot came up, connecting with the door hard enough to send it into the face of the guard, stunning him long enough for Yu to throw him across the room, and toss his rifle to Nick.
The butt end of the rifle came up, catching the second guard in the face. He took a moment to enjoy the satisfying crunch of teeth before he swung the rifle around to fire at any more unfriendly bodies that might come through the door.
Yu was beside him a moment later, knuckles a little bloody—probably the guards, not her own—with two handguns, loaded and ready. “Next step, Sir?”
“Find the rest of the team, Agent.”
“And how exactly—“
He held up a hand, bending a little more gingerly than he would have liked and grabbing the radio on the belt of the guard who’d lost his front teeth. Nick smiled, his hand moving to fiddle with the frequency until he could hear some familiar voices. “Just like the last time.” He chuckled softly. “Follow me.”
He found the frequency he wanted as they moved, consciously doing his best to focus on keeping one foot in front of the other. He clipped the radio to his belt loop and kept both hands on the rifle.
Yu must have noticed and not bought into the idea that it was combat focus. “Sir…”
“Just keep us moving, Agent.”
He knew the look she was likely giving him. It was the same one that Melinda had given him as they worked their way through the halls of a similar compound on the other side of the world. The one that said ‘are you sure I’m not going to have to drag your ass out of here?’ without actually putting the words to it. Honestly he wasn’t entirely sure Yu wouldn’t have to do just that, but he was damn well going to stay on his feet as long as possible.
Her voice pulled him back and she threw an arm up and took them both around a corner, just out of the gunfire behind them. She knelt down, quickly sighting their pursuers and firing back at them. “Any idea when that rescue team might get here?”
He glanced out into the hall over her head, firing the rifle down toward the Latverians. He heard a few pained cries from that direction but the bullets just kept flying past their hole in the wall. “Any minute now.” He fought past the pain in his ribs for a deep breath. The sooner they had some help, the better.
That’s when he heard it. The dull clink of metal rolling on a metal floor. “Grenade!” He grabbed Yu, pulled her back from the opening and put himself between her and the blast. One of them had to stay functional.
It rolled past them and toward the Latverians but the heat of the explosion was… noticeable. That was the nice word for it. He quietly wished the fuckers hadn’t taken his leather coat. It likely would have absorbed more of the heat than the shirt he was wearing would have. Or it would have if it hadn’t already seen an explosion in the last two days. Either way, that shit stung. The sting was a good sign though. That meant the nerves were still working, despite the efforts of his captors and the grenade.
He blinked up at the woman patting his shoulder. It took a second to focus on her face and the look of absolute unimpressed exasperation on it. “Mel?”
“Idiot.” It was just quiet enough that nobody but him would hear it.
Nick smiled up at her. “Knew you’d show up eventually.”
“Get your ass up.” Another set of arms helped him to his feet. It wasn’t Yu—she was still watching the hallway with a new rifle in her hands—and these hands felt familiar. “I can’t leave you alone for a god damn minute, can I?”
Melinda’s voice cut across anything either of them had to say to each other. “Come on, you can give him shit later.”
“Intel…” even as his brain was telling him to sleep, that he was safe—which was ridiculous because they were still in the base but it was getting hard to focus on that—he wanted proof, wanted to be able to say without a doubt that these people had ties to Doom and his leadership. Something they couldn’t throw away.
“Ward’s on it. Stop working and get your ass in gear.”
He caught the edge of a smile. “You owe me big time for this.”
“I love you too, you know.”
“Mhmm. ‘s why I knew you’d come.”
Not that the trail of minions he’d left behind hadn’t been enough to track him but it wasn’t exactly the time for subtlety. Not really anyway. He trusted that Coulson and May would get to the Director and his pilot. Failure wasn’t an option. That had been perfectly clear, especially after the orders from Deputy Director Hill. Get in, get what you can and get everybody out. No options. No safe conduct. Just get it done.
He found a USB port quickly and started a download. Everything and anything went. The more intel they had the better off they’d be. He let the machine do its thing and watched the door to the small room with his sidearm drawn. His focus was sharper than he’d felt in some time. Whether that was the reveal of who he was really working with, and by extension the renewed need to prove himself worthy of their trust in him, or just the fact that he hadn’t been on his own in an op in months, he wasn’t sure.
But the stories of Strike Team Beta had been like fairy tales to him in his training. He wasn’t one for a team but he wanted to be that good. That prepared. That ready for anything. Now, he felt like he had to be. He couldn’t let down the people that had been his heroes, even without faces or names.
More than that though, he wouldn’t let down his team.
When the first guard came through the door, all that slipped away on the first shot. Now wasn’t the time to think too hard on motives or heroes. He had enough to worry about as the download completed and the Latverians swarmed the door.
Melinda nodded. “Yu, watch the six.” She tapped at the comm. “Ward, you have ten minutes to the entrance. Copy?”
There was static for a moment, then the distinct sounds of gunfire. “Gonna need a minute here.”
“Do you have the intel?”
She frowned at Phil. “He needs back up.”
“Go. We’ll get there. Yu’s got our six.” Melinda stared Phil in the eye until she was sure he wasn’t just bluffing and nodded once before she headed off toward Ward’s position.
Phil took a deep breath and turned to the woman behind them. “Yu?”
“She’s got this, Phil.” Nick’s voice slurred a little.
Phil smiled again despite the situation. He eyed the agent one more time but if Nick said she could handle it, then she could handle it. “High praise. Let’s go.” He looked back to Nick. “Can you hold it together a little longer?”
“You mean can I shoot anybody that isn’t one of us?”
“Yeah, I can manage. It’ll be slow going though.”
“Ten minutes to the front door.”
“Yeah, I heard.” Nick groaned and squeezed his eye shut. “Just point me in the right direction.”
“Stubborn bastard.” Phil muttered to himself, slipping an arm behind Nick to keep him steady. He waited for a smart ass response but didn’t get one. “Stay with me.”
“Yeah. I’m harder to get rid of than that.”
They moved silently from there. Probably surprising given the shape Nick was in, but they’d had practice over the years. A few of the Latverians tried to stop them but were quickly dispatched. Nick’s shots were still true, despite everything. It was something Phil had always envied in his lover but he appreciated it even more when things went to shit.
Phil kept checking in as they moved, unsure how far Nick was going to be able to push his luck. “Nick?”
“Yeah… yeah. I can make it.”
“Good. We’re almost there.” He looked at Yu. She quickly moved to the corner and checked. Her eyes went wide for a moment. “Bad?”
“There are twenty soldiers between us and the door. All heavily armed.”
Phil sighed and rested Nick against the wall. “Blaze of glory, boss?”
“Worked other times.”
“Other times we had Melinda with us.”
Nick smirked, his head rolling to the side and he motioned toward a doorway across the space in front of the door. “Oh ye of little faith.”
Phil looked again and could make out the faint outline of May and Ward. He shook his head. How Nick spotted that before he did was a mystery but he really wasn’t that surprised. “Okay, we still need a distraction.”
Yu smiled and held up her hand. “Sir, I might just have an idea on that front.”
“Well, it turns out that one of those many random soldiers had some interesting treats.”
Yu smiled and held up a small metal tube. “Will a flash grenade do?”
Phil smiled back and looked at Nick. “I like this one.”
“Me too. She’s getting a promotion after this.” His eye slid shut for a second and he winced as he took a deep breath. “Let’s get this over with.”
Phil nodded, taking the grenade from Yu and signaling Melinda. “Here goes nothing.” He pulled the pin and tossed it toward the door, shielding his eyes when it went off.
She caught a glimpse of Agent Yu swinging a rifle butt into the face of one of the soldiers. Melinda couldn’t help but smile. She knew who taught the younger agent that move. It was Nick’s go to favorite and he’d probably used it at least once on their way out of their cell. And it was a good tactic to use the weapon in unexpected ways. It put your enemies off their game a little and that was definitely something she could appreciate.
Kind of like Phil with the pin from the grenade. She didn’t see how he managed it but the pin was lodged in the throat of one of the Latverian who was absolutely not getting up again.
Ward was at her back, putting his reach to use and sweeping back the men that had managed to blink back the flash of light that had blinded them. The element of surprise wasn’t with them anymore and she saw Phil go for his sidearm as Nick swung a rifle up to fire. The last few obstacles went down quickly and Ward moved to push the door open as Fury’s knees seemed to give out on him.
“Shit.” She moved forward, helping Phil make sure Nick didn’t hit the dirt. “Ward!”
He moved in quickly, the sunlight from the now opened door making them all blink. “I’ve got him.” He wrapped an arm around Nick’s back and thankfully ignored the small sound of pain from this Director. Given the shape he was in, it was a miracle he’d made it as far as he had on his own power. “Do we have a ride?”
As if the question had summoned the helicopter, they heard the sound of blades in the air. “Yeah, and right on time.” Phil waved them out the door and toward the sound. The chopper landed in the open space in front of the door and opened up to let them on. The med team took Nick to the back before she could say anything to him and Phil tried to follow, even as one of the medics tried to tell him they needed room to work.
Ward stepped up. “Sir.” The word carried enough emotion that it set her on edge. It wasn’t something she expected from Grant even in the face of Phil’s obvious want to save Nick himself. “They know what they’re doing. Let them work.”
Phil nodded and she watched the muscles in his throat work. He didn’t say anything as he climbed in and buckled up.
Melinda offered Yu a hand in and hopped in herself and Ward watched the door to make sure they weren’t being followed. As he got in and they lifted off, she spoke. “How much did you get?”
“Everything.” The word was quiet in the noise of the helicopter. “They’ll have to work to deny any of this.”
“Good.” She nodded and sat back. “That’s good.”
”Just keep breathing.”
“I’m not trying to stop here, Mel…” Nick winced and nearly cried out as he shifted. His back was a mess. As if someone had tried to butcher him. Her eyes lifted to watch where Phil was standing watch. “Could cut me a break and knock me out…”
“No.” She did her best to patch him up despite the fact that they were still stuck on a mountain without hope or sign of a lift out. “We need you awake.”
“You know it. Stay still.”
He hissed at she did her best to stitch up the longest and deepest of the gashes in his back. She’d managed to pull the tiny med kit from one of the guards after she snapped his neck and she’d never been quite so thankful for alcohol swabs and a suture kit. It wasn’t nearly enough but it was definitely better than nothing.
“He’s okay. He’s got our six. Stop moving.”
His voice dropped as he sucked in another breath. “Just… get him out of this.”
“I’ll get you both out of this.”
“Okay. Whatever you say.” That should have been a sign of how bad off they were.
When she tied off the stitches, his eyes had fallen closed. “Nick?” She wasn’t going to panic. “Fury!” He barely moved as her voice rose. “Phil! Get over here!”
He was at her side a moment later and for the first time, she saw fear in his eyes. “Nick? Nick, come on. Stay with us.” He blinked a few times and nodded. “Okay. Just a little longer and we’ll get you the good pain killers okay?”
Nick smiled a little and nodded again.
“How do you figure we do that?” Melinda spoke quietly. There wasn’t a village for miles and even between the two of them, getting Nick anywhere was going to be tricky.
Phil pointed in the direction he’d been looking before Nick lost consciousness. “I think there’s a search and rescue chopper in the air. If we could signal them somehow, we’d be in the clear.”
They didn’t have much on them. Her eyes darted around the small clearing and she tried to form a plan. “Did you pick anything up on the way out?” Phil shook his head. She cursed quietly to herself before moving to go through Nick’s pockets. What she found made her smile. “We’re in business.”
Nothing drew attention like a burning tree in the middle of nowhere.
The inquest had been short even after Nick was back on his feet. Barely back on his feet, of course. She would never forget seeing Nick standing in front of the review board on shaking legs, pushing himself out of a wheelchair to scream at them that they were putting people at risk by not doing more. That if they didn’t shut this now in that moment, the Ten Rings would come back and bite them all in the ass.
SHIELD was not convinced that their intel was as good as they thought. The Ten Rings, they said, were not a real threat. It was the first time she’d found herself doubting the system and she found that Phil and Nick didn’t like it anymore than she did.
Ten years later they’d all had a moment of ‘I told you so’ at SHIELD’s miscalculation. But it had put the idea that the system wasn’t always right into all of their heads. “They’ll find a way.” She sighed and let her eyes close for a moment. “They always do.”
“Part of the game?”
“Nick is the one that can answer that.”
“I’ll ask sometime.”
“After this, you might just get a chance to do that.” She opened her eyes again. “You did good.”
He nodded once, fingers playing with the stick in his hand that had all the intel he’d gotten on it.
“Don’t drop that.”
He laughed softly. “I’ll do my best.”
“Sir…” Maria felt her eyes go wide. “Shouldn’t you be in medical?”
“I’ve spent the whole trip back being fussed over. I’ve got enough in me to do this.” He handed a data stick to Maria. “Between this and the nuke, we’ve got ‘em.”
She couldn’t quite hold back the smile. “Glad to have you back, Sir.” She took the stick and started downloading the intel. There was a lot there. Troop movements, funding records. There was no denying that the money led right to the Latverian government. “You look like shit though.”
“Could have been worse.” The screens jumped to life with the usual parade of shadowy figures. She knew who and where they were, of course, but tradition dictated this kind of thing. Really, she felt it was just a flare for the dramatic. If she wasn’t fully aware of the fact that Fury hated this as much as she did, she’d accuse him of being part of the whole show. But this time, a little melodrama seemed appropriate.
“Can it, Councilman. I have no interest in niceties right now and I have been told I should be in bed.”
“Clearly you’ve been through—“
Fury was in rare form and was clearly not going to take any of their usual bullshit with any kind of grace. “Hell, yes. I’m glad you see that. I’d like an explanation for why you’re backing a violent dictatorship over your own people.”
“You’re out of line, Director.”
“Am I?” He hit a few keys on the keyboard nearest him. “There is the intel my team recovered. What do you have to say now?”
The silence in the room was nearly solid. If she hadn’t been used to the plots and ploys that went along with the job, she felt like she might have trouble breathing in the face of all that tension.
“That’s what I thought.” Fury positioned himself so that he could lean on the counter without looking like he was. It was a tell to her of how much pain he had to be in. “What are we going to do about this?”
“We will handle it internally.”
“You have a week. If there haven’t been some major moves, this goes public.”
“You can’t do that.”
“Maybe not. But I have a few people around that are pretty damn good at getting information to the masses.” He disconnected the call and nearly fell over. “What were you saying about me being in medical?”
Maria nodded. “I’ll make sure you get a discreet hand getting there.”
“Nothing, yet. But Director Fury appreciates your ability to get information to the right people at the right time.” Coulson smiled a little. “In about a week, that information should see the light of day in as many places as possible.”
Her eyebrow crept up and the beginnings of a sly smile crossed her face. “That’s sneaky.”
“SHIELD is sneaky.”
“What about all that compartmentalizing intel and security levels and all that jazz?” She tapped the stick on the table.
“There are exceptions to every rule, Skye. I thought you’d figured that out by now.”
“Trust the system?”
“This isn’t really about the system.”
She grinned in a way that meant nothing but trouble. “Okay, trust your boyfriend then?”
It was Phil’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “What did I tell you about the word ‘boyfriend’?”
Skye put her hands up in surrender. “Husband?”
“Soon enough, yeah.” A small smile crept across Phil’s face.
She nodded, suddenly a little more serious. “How’s he doing?”
Phil sighed and shrugged a shoulder. He’d been fielding a lot of those questions for the last few days. “He’s healing up. He was calling Hill this morning for updates so I think he’ll be okay.”
“Still planning the whole wedding thing?”
“After all this? It’s the least he could do.” Coulson smirked. “It feels important to do it.” He shrugged again. “After everything that’s happened I want to say those words in front of the people that are important to us.”
“Wow, AC…” Skye smiled and nudged his shoulder. “That’s really sweet.”
Coulson let out a short chuckle. “You were the one that thought we were cute when nobody’s looking.”
“That I did.” She smirked. “And now you’ve given me proof.” She leaned heavily on the table and spun the data stick between her fingers. “Do I get an invite to round 2?”
“What do you think?”
“I think I’m looking forward to seeing how SHIELD really parties.”
Coulson laughed and shook his head. “It’s not really that different than anybody’s else’s parties.”
“Just more security and people that can kill you with a toothpick.”
“There is that.” Coulson turned and headed up the stairs to his office. “Make sure you ask Agent Sitwell to do the chicken dance.”
“Seriously?” He didn’t answer and she moved forward, leaning on the railing. “Come on, really?”
He turned back and smirked, not giving her a real answer. “You’ll just have to wait and see.”
Nick couldn’t really blame him. He was barely out of medical and given what happened the last time they’d tried this… well, he wasn’t going to turn down a chance to spend an extra night curled up with Phil on ridiculously expensive sheets. If he was honest about it, he wasn’t sure he’d get any sleep if Phil hadn’t been there. They’d been through all this before. He knew the routine after a hostage situation. But he also knew that after something terrible happened, it was easier to sleep with Phil beside him. The warmth of his back against Nick’s chest and the pressure of his hands on Nick’s arms was enough to keep him centered enough to get some sleep.
Even so, he woke up a few times and pulled Phil closer. The third time it happened, Phil rolled over. “Hey… you okay?”
“Yeah.” Nick smiled a little and pressed a kiss to his temple. “Yeah, I’m good.”
Phil didn’t ask anything else. He knew better. He’d been there himself. He just rolled over to face him, tucked his head under his chin and pressed a kiss to his throat. “You know…” Nick felt him smirk against his skin. “This would be the last chance we’ve got to do the whole living in sin thing…”
Nick laughed softly, leaning back to press a kiss to Phil’s lips. “Before we become one of those properly married couples?”
“You have a point.”
“It happens now and then.” Phil kissed him again, pulling him closer. “For old time’s sake?”
That got an actual laugh from him. “Should I call Melinda?”
“Pretty sure she’s busy.”
Nick nodded. He’d picked up some of what was going on with the young Agent Ward and their former partner. “What do you think that’s about?”
“I don’t think they know yet.” Phil shrugged and kissed him again. “Right now, I can’t really bring myself to care.”
“Single minded.” Nick smiled as Phil’s lips moved down toward his chest.
“I can’t say no to you.” Nick pulled him up to straddle his hips. “And if this is the only way to get some sleep…”
“It’s very relaxing.” Phil’s hips shifted against him.
Nick hummed softly. “Eventually.” He pulled Phil down for another kiss. “Maybe I just want to hold you for now.”
“You get to do that forever.”
“Good.” He wrapped his arms tighter around Phil, pressing a line of soft kisses across his collarbone. “Nothing else I’d want to do.”
“Well,” Phil lifted his head and smiled. “I bet there’s one thing…” He kissed Nick’s lips again before he started down his throat and his chest. “Want to hear my theory?” He smirked up at him as his teeth caught the skin just above Nick’s belly button.
“Mm.” He reached down, cupping Phil’s cheek and rubbing his thumb across his cheekbone. “Yeah, enlighten me.”
So he watched from his spot near the bar. It seemed like everyone had simply picked up where they’d left off the last time. Simmons was happily chatting with the beautiful blonde again and both women seemed more than happy to ignore the music in favor of a discussion about the venom of a newly discovered spider, if he’d heard that right. Most of it was over his head.
Fitz and Skye were both having a rather lively talk with Tony Stark, stars in both of their eyes as he laughed and seemed to enjoy their ideas. He was more than happy to see that they’d both gotten over the nerves he’d seen in them the first time out.
He catalogued the names of the rest of the guests as well. Hawkeye and the Black Widow were quite happily spinning around the dance floor. He never expected to see her in person, much less laughing as her partner spun her out and back as dramatically as possible. He’d actually laughed earlier when Clint Barton and Jasper Sitwell—both clearly respected and dangerous agents of SHIELD—attempted to teach Captain America the chicken dance.
That had been a moment he’d likely never forget.
But the thing that kept drawing his attention was the couple of the hour. He hadn’t had much experience with either of the men outside of work and seeing the Director of SHIELD so relaxed and clearly happy was surprising. Which, he was willing to admit was likely unfair. But the way he and Coulson were stepping out onto the floor as the band slowed things down was striking. He’d never seen Coulson’s smile come so easily. He’d never seen either of them dance but they moved together like this was far from the first time. He guessed it was likely they’d had plenty of dances over the years.
As Melinda stepped up beside him, she handed him a canapé. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to ask you to dance.”
“I appreciate that.” He took a bite and a sip of his champagne. “I wouldn’t want to step on your feet.”
“And I appreciate that.”
They stood quietly for a while, watching the party unfold around them. Finally, the question that had been burning in the back of his mind since he’d found out the truth about Strike Team Beta couldn’t be held back. He’d blame the champagne later. “Can I ask you something?”
She tilted her head and stared up at him for a moment before nodding.
“There were rumors… back at the Academy. At the Hub… about Strike Team Beta.”
“I’d imagine there were a lot of rumors.”
“But…” Grant looked out at the dance floor again. Director Fury’s laugh carried on the air a moment later. “The one about how the team was… involved.”
“Sleeping together?” She smirked just a little and he was sure he blushed.
“Oh.” He took another sip of his champagne and tried to work that out for himself. It shouldn’t have been surprising really. He knew how things happened. Hadn’t they happened with him and Melinda? But there was a fondness in how she had answered that made him think. “Can I ask what happened?”
Her gaze landed on the two men. Their hands were linked and pressed between them as they danced. Director Fury bent and pressed a kiss to Coulson’s lips that could only be described as tender. Again it wasn’t something he’d ever expected to see from two legendary agents, but there it was. He turned his attention back to Melinda. Her smile was another thing he’d never expected to see. She looked fond and maybe a little proud of them.
She shook her head and took a sip of her champagne. “It’s very simple, Ward.” She looked up at him. “We saved the world together. We came up through the ranks together. We saw each other through things most people wouldn’t believe.”
She laughed softly. Ward watched as she shook her head and he thought maybe he understood. He knew how she viewed these things. They’d never discussed any kind of emotional involvement because she’d made it clear that wasn’t what she was looking for. It wasn’t in the cards for him either and it seemed like, for her, that was a long standing rule. She was content in that. Again, she’d made that clear and she’d likely made that clear to them as well back when they were a team. Still, she felt the need to put the words to it that her expression and her laugh had implied. “And… then they fell in love.”
Grant turned back to the dance floor and watched them together again. He’d gotten a glimpse at how they’d likely grown into the solid pair they were. He’d seen glimpses of the darker side of that too, though likely not as much as Melinda had. He wondered vaguely how much someone needed to love someone to try to work through the darker days. He shook his head and sighed, taking another sip of his champagne. It was the stuff of legends, that kind of love. And that seemed to fit better in SHIELD and with superheroes and aliens than it would for ordinary people. Maybe that was the key.
He found himself smiling at the thought. “Yeah. That’s enough.”